Fire in the opium hub : The Tribune India

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Fire in the opium hub

Shaken by farmers’ agitiation, MP’s Mandsaur is part of the Malwa-Mewar belt where opium accounts for 75% of legal trade. Major consumers of opium derivatives are Punjab and Rajasthan. Is there a link between the present stir and the regulated supply of husk?

Fire in the opium hub

Anger on streets: Buses torched by agitating farmers dot the Bhopal-Indore highway in Dewas district.

Chandrakant Naidu in Bhopal

The Madhya Pradesh Police intelligence unit is sniffing drug peddlers’ connection in last week’s violent agitation near Mandsaur that left five farmers dead and busted the state government’s tall claims on agricultural success.

Mandsaur’s major claim to fame lies in it being an opium hub of the nation. Neemuch, Mandsaur and Ratlam districts fall in the Malwa-Mewar belt spreading over western Madhya Pradesh and southern Rajasthan. Nearly 38,000 hectares are licensed for opium cultivation. About 30,000 cultivators in these districts grow opium accounting for 75% of legal trade in the commodity. And, among the major consumers of derivatives are Rajasthan and Punjab.

An agency report quoting intelligence sources of the police said the farmers’ violence was a manifestation of their pent-up anger following a ban on the regulated sale of poppy husk in Mandsaur and Neemuch districts for the past two years. 

Poppy haul

In September last year excise officials burned down poppy husk in 26 warehouses of the Mandsaur district on Narcotics Control Bureau’s orders. The stock, worth about Rs 100 crore, was procured between 2014 and March 2016. The officials had claimed that the action was taken in view of elections in Punjab this year. 

In April, Neemuch police seized 17 kg of opium and over 60 kg of poppy husk, a grinding machine, and arrested two persons. The consignment was worth over Rs 25 crore in the international market. The smuggler, Jaswant Singh of Amritsar had built a secret chamber on the roof of his SUV. On Jaswant Singh’s information, the police raided the farm of Vishal Patidar who supplied the contraband. Poppy husk sells for Rs 5,000 per kg in the retail market in Punjab. 

MP versus Punjab

However, Mandsaur’s latest blip on the national radar is for another reason. 

It has exposed the long-time trend in Madhya Pradesh to fudge the figures and claim national agricultural production awards to claim parity with Punjab on the farm front. 

The state has won the Krishi Karman Award for four successive years. But the path to glory has been soaked in the blood of farmers. Suicides by more than 7,500 farmers in the past five years have marred its achievements. 

During the Budget session of the state assembly, the state government admitted that 287 farmers, including agricultural labourers, had committed suicide between November 2016 and February 2017. The Nimar-Malwa belt, the more fertile and prosperous part 

of the state, has for long been the stronghold of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS). 

Seeds of trouble

What Mandsaur witnessed was an encore of the inept show. The first sign of trouble was seen in December, 2010, when thousands of farmers from across the state led by the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, an affiliate of the RSS, laid a siege to the Chief Minister’s residence and held the state capital to ransom to protest the government’s alleged anti-farmer policies.  That a BJP front organisation outdid the Opposition in targeting it embarrassed the government. It engineered a split in BKS and one faction called off the strike. The Kisan Sangh disowned its president, Shivkumar Sharma. The RSS also slammed the door on him. 

Six years on, the BKS led by Shivkant Dikshit and Bharatiya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh led by Shivkumar Sharma again squared up against the government in Mandsaur, and predictably enough, the government engaged Dikshit faction for negotiations and it called off the strike. BKMS stood the ground to challenge the government’s might.

Govt diffidence

The government’s response betrayed unusual diffidence. It first announced Rs 5 lakh compensation for the kin of the dead and ended up raising it to an astronomical Rs 1 crore — unheard so far. Critics said the government was triggering anarchy by first calling the victims anti-socials and then offering them such a huge compensation. The Home Minister, Bhupendra Singh, who first insisted that the police never fired on the farmers in Mandsaur, had to eat his words.

The latest eruption has considerably eroded Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s image. The year-round electoral calendar has constantly kept the Chief Minister in the election mode for best part of his third term. This has apparently jaded him as an administrator.

Most violent farmers’ rallies so far have been led by the RSS affiliate Bharatiya Kisan Sangh. So, the party’s troubles are “home-grown.” 

Friends and foes

Shivraj Singh Chouhan is one of the very few leaders with pan-Madhya Pradesh appeal. His modest presence has fitted the bill for the party and the Sangh. The resultant unipolarity within the party was bound to breed discontent. But, the Chief Minister insists that Congress fuelled the week-long agitation that went out of hand. 

The Congress should feel flattered by the accusations of fuelling the farmers’ agitation against the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh.

The Congress leadership has squandered many opportunities to capitalise on public issues. Even on the current agitation, the Congress leaders marked their presence mostly in the media. The popular joke in the state is that with its self-enamoured leaders, the Congress doesn’t need enemies. And, with a foe like Congress, the BJP doesn’t need more friends.

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